Weird melancholy: The Australian Gothic

July 15 / 163

Arthur Boyd
Australia Spring landscape 1959
oil on board
25.3 x 35.4 cm
The University of Melbourne Art Collection. Gift of the Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest 1973.
© Image reproduction courtesy Bundanon Trust
Arthur Boyd Australia Spring landscape 1959 oil on board 25.3 x 35.4 cm The University of Melbourne Art Collection. Gift of the Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest 1973. © Image reproduction courtesy Bundanon Trust

 

An exhibition of works from the University’s painting and photograph collection reveals mystery and darkness in artists’ responses to the Australian landscape, famously described by Marcus Clarke in 1876 as its ‘weird melancholy’.

 

Curated by Suzette Wearne, Weird Melancholy explores the Australian Gothic, which arose in the nineteenth century when writers and explorers begun to describe the Australian landscape in gothic tones, a ghostly, darkly romantic, and wild genre that had its roots in eighteenth century Britain. It’s a tradition most recently revived in films such Wake in Fright (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Wolf Creek (2005) and The Proposition (2005). 

 

"The Gothic literary form certainly developed a stronghold in colonial Australia," said Ms Wearne. 

 

"Fiction from that time commonly depicted Australia as a sordid, malevolent rural underbelly. It seemed to me very unlikely that there could be such a strong literary tradition, not to mention a recognised and theorised genre in film without a corresponding tradition in the visual arts."

 

While the Australian Gothic has been overlooked in conventional readings of Australian art history, Weird Melancholy shows us that artists from the eighteenth century to the present also registered the anxieties, disorientation and sometimes fear inherent in colonial and post-colonial responses to the natural landscape.

 

From Eugene von Guerard’s meticulously botanical forests, to Hugh Ramsay’s moody portraits; from the oppressive verticality of Fred Williams’ gum trees to Louise Hearman’s spectral presences and otherworldly landscapes, Weird Melancholy uncovers traces of the gothic and demonstrates its persistence, over the centuries, in Australian visual art.

 

Weird Melancholy can be viewed at the Ian Potter Museum of Art until Sunday 9 August.

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